It can be hard to get into a workout routine, we know. But once you do, you'll start to see improvements in your health, and depending on your workout goals, your fitness and athletic performance. That's the good news. The bad news, perhaps, is if you stick to the same workout, you will experience a plateau.
"Variability is crucial," Yaron Ilan, MD, director of the department of medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical Center in Israel, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Looking at sport, if you keep running on a treadmill at the same pace every day for years, there is no variability."
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But how often should you change your workout routine? And what types of changes do you need to make to avoid plateau?
It'll depend on your goals, but even small changes can be enough to challenge your body, says Kylie Harmon, PhD, CSCS, an assistant professor of exercise science at Syracuse University, who specializes in resistance training.
"Overall, small changes over time can really add up to pronounced adaptations," Harmon tells LIVESTRONG.com, pointing out that our bodies love homeostasis — balance. "That's what we're looking for when we want to see performance improvement."
How Often Should You Change Your Workout Routine?
In order to keep things fresh and your body challenged, Harmon recommends changing something every four to six weeks.
"You don't need to change an entire program every four weeks," she says, noting that you actually shouldn't in order to meet your goals. "It depends on the goal, but you can make small changes every week, like adding weight or adding repetitions."
An example Harmon gives is cookie-cutter strength programs, which generally introduce a new element or modify an existing one every four weeks, including a "deload" wave. A deload period is when you scale back your training to avoid overtraining and give your body a chance to recover.
Dr. Ilan, who authored this February 2022 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, is a little more aggressive in his approach to changing up your workouts and says that technically we should be changing parts of a workout every minute.
"The more you change, the better," he says. "Every minute on the treadmill, that's ideal. Every day is also fine. The more you introduce variability, the better."
Realistically, though, it's unlikely a runner, for example, will change their pace every minute. And that doesn't mean that runner won't get faster or build tolerance to run longer. But, a good way to introduce this constant variability in a single workout could be mid-run surges: For every three minutes of easy running, add a 60-second surge or pickup.
How Should You Change Your Workout Routine to Avoid Plateau?
Weight-lifters are probably familiar with progressive overload, which is a way to help improve your strength. Specifically, it requires you to choose exercises and weights that maximize strength-building. This is one way to help avoid a plateau, yes, but even smaller changes will yield results.
One example is changing from a bilateral movement — a barbell back squat, for example — to a unilateral movement — a Bulgarian split squat — which can challenge your body enough to improve strength, Harmon says.
Or, Harmon says switching up the type of equipment you're using — barbell, dumbbell, gym machine — is another small change you can make to your workout routine to see improvements.
If your goal is body composition-oriented (building lean muscle, for example), Harmon recommends adding repetitions week to week without decreasing the weight. If your goal is strength-oriented, try adding a little more weight while decreasing the number of repetitions.
What Happens When You Don't Change Your Workout Routine
They say variety is the spice of life. That's also true for your workout routine.
"At the end of the day, your body just wants to adapt so it can handle stressors," Harmon explains. "When there are new stressors, your body can adapt and rise to those challenges."
If we do the same exercise over and over again we can get really good at it, but it's no longer a challenge, and we won't see an increase in adaptation or improved performance.
Dr. Ilan agrees and gives the example of basketball great LeBron James.
"LeBron James practices and practices and gets better, but then he hits a plateau because of the connections between his brain, his muscles and his nerves," Dr. Ilan explains. "Practicing will help maintain his plateau, but his body has developed a tolerance."
In other words, not only does changing up your workout routine challenge your muscles to work harder and differently, it's challenging your mind and creating new neural pathways.
"If you introduce surprise in a workout, you can overcome the plateau in your brain," Dr. Ilan says. "We're designed to adapt to changes, our brain adjusts and then we need to cheat the brain."
Variety also keeps you from getting stuck in a workout rut, Harmon says.
"I'm a big believer in liking what we're doing," she says.
There's research to back up the idea that keeping your workout, er, spicy, can keep you more motivated, too. A December 2019 study published in PLOS One found that a small group of male subjects showed comparable gains in strength, but those who had more variety in the workouts had more motivation to work out.
In order to help people avoid training plateaus, Dr. Ilan, with his company, Oberon Sciences, developed an application that changes a user's workout, whether that be running pace or distance, to continuously challenge the body (and the mind).
Dr. Ilan gives this example: A user can connect their app to a treadmill, and the program will select a speed from a predefined range, say, 3 to 5 miles per hour. Throughout the workout, the program will change the pace every minute.
"You can break that training plateau," he says, noting that as you use the program regularly, the algorithm will learn how you work out and will adapt accordingly.
The Bottom Line
In order to avoid a training plateau, it's crucial to change some part of your workout every few weeks. It doesn't have to be a monumental change; even something small can keep your brain and your body challenged.
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "A Subject-Tailored Variability-Based Platform for Overcoming the Plateau Effect in Sports Training: A Narrative Review"
- PLOS One: "The Effects of Exercise Variation in Muscle Thickness, Maximal Strength and Motivation in Resistance Trained Men"